#5: Lurking Before You Leap

+ A reader reconnects with their first online community during quarantine

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(Flickr user: hnt6581/Creative Commons)

Look alive

One distinguishing quality of digital space is that it allows people to participate without ever having to be seen. We get to observe how people behave in spaces before taking the leap of joining a conversation. Early in the internet’s commercial adoption, “lurking” became an acknowledged custom: Posters on forums, blogs, and message boards knew people were reading even if they never replied with comments. 

In her new book, Lurking: How a Person Became a User, writer Joanne McNeil describes how the knowledge of people invisibly browsing the internet meant writing on the web never felt like a truly solitary activity and how the quiet behavior of just reading functioned as a “waiting room before communication” for the internet’s shyest contributors. According to McNeil, lurkers were regarded as “warm and indirect, good people, potential friends,” who were “not creeps, but maybe a little bit weird.”

McNeil defines “lurkers” in the positive sense, though. She contrasts their ethic to the web developer’s notion of the “user,” where platforms people online and gather data to monetize their behavior. Lurking captures how people have set the terms of identity while wrestling for control within these online spaces. McNeil tracks down people working to or researching how make part of the internet better—from the founder of the early bulletin board Echo to a professor assigning Wikipedia edits to her students—and in the process McNeil reveals how we might make the web a safer and more welcoming space. She even proposes the novel idea of having librarians for the internet

Civic Signals spoke with McNeil this week via phone, while quarantine puts the notion of lurking in a whole new context. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Andrew Small: What do you consider "lurking" on the internet? You define lurking in a positive way that is interesting compared to what people might think.

Joanne McNeil: In the book, I use "lurking" for positive examples of observing people online. That could be people who read and never participate in an online group or people who are just not participating yet. It’s not the same as stalking or surveillance. It is a way to listen online and something that the Internet uniquely allows people to do.

Small: You describe lurking as a kind of superpower, because there's something safe about being able to look safely, anonymously on the internet. Does lurking have an analogue in real life public spaces, like people-watching?

McNeil: People-watching is a similar example in the physical world, but in the physical world, you can be observed while you're observing people. Online your presence is less visible. It’s always been part of online communication. Most people 30 years ago, when they signed up for the Internet, probably didn't know a lot of people there. It's not like they were joining a group chat with their neighbors or family or people in their real life. If you signed up for the Internet 30 years ago, you were probably going to interact with a lot of strangers and maybe some people are okay with that. But others want to feel like they belong and feel like they have a sense of what this community is all about. So they take time to read a few posts before jumping in and participating.

Small: Is there any parallel to introverts and extroverts that you think matters for defining why lurking makes the internet a better place to be?

I think it’s more like reading and similar to the way that reading connects people, which introverts and extroverts both do.

Small: How do you think the internet has changed now that anonymity has fallen away on a lot of platforms?

The opportunity for anonymity in the earliest years of the web meant you were possibly engaging with a lot more strangers. Now, with a lot of focus on real names and real identities and a lot of the connection between users and identity and their physical location, that's chipped away at the unusual opportunity to meet and engage with unknown people online. One space that still has this culture of talking to strangers is certainly Reddit, because people still engage with screen names and might have some layer of anonymity. If I were to name a platform that reminds me the most of what the internet used to be like, that's one of the first that comes to mind.

Small: There's been so many metaphors to describe the abstract idea of the internet as a place, like the information superhighway. What do you think is the most useful way of explaining how the internet is functioning as a place?

McNeil: I don’t necessarily think of it as a place. I stick to the idea of talking about the internet as a communication tool and as information. I do try to draw parallels to the experience of a public library. But the absence of librarians, the absence of people to communicate with that have guidance and responsibility for the information you're seeking—that's something I feel missing from the internet experience. 

This is something I've been thinking about a lot since so many people's experiences under quarantine are now taken to Zoom or video calls. It's given me a new opportunity to think about why a Zoom call isn't as great as seeing someone in person. It's a good substitute, it's better than nothing, but it's certainly not the same. I wouldn't say it's more formal but there are certain things you can't read in that experience. You don't have the experience of being in the same place and ability to comment on what's in the room with you. But it's better than nothing.

(Courtesy of MCD Books and Farrar, Strauss, and Girroux)

Small: It's interesting how much this crisis has had us reevaluating our relationships to apps and the people tethered to them. Whether it's the restaurant down the street closing or the people now doing the work of delivering what's now essential through that app?

McNeil: In the book, I didn't really get into the labor of the gig economy, but I've been following developments. And as the coronavirus crisis unfolds, the illusion of automation continues to hide the reality of workers on the ground with more sinister implications. Like if you're ordering things online, there are people in a warehouse packaging it and people delivering those packages to you. It’s not robots and drones, but people at risk of getting infected.

Small: In the book, you describe how people came to be thought of as "users." Why does that term grate people’s nerves?

McNeil: Some people object to the word "user," and say things like, “why don’t we call users ‘people’?" But the word gives visibility to a user and highlights the relative powerlessness of a user. I want people to think of themselves as users, and the lack of control one has—where you are on the hierarchy of internet participation, compared to someone who is the developer or founder of a service.

Small: It's interesting how a forum has control over its own rules, compared to platforms where there's just endless entry points. And it's exhausting.

McNeil: One thing that is prevalent about the internet experience now is that you almost don't have a choice but to be a moderator: It's just part of being a user. If you're in a group chat—even if it's just a dozen people—you're going to see people get in an argument and if you want that community to keep going, you might have to say something and reach out to these friends of yours. It's so common to see gossip or actual harassment. I see that in the recent phenomenon of Zoom-bombing. Platforms have to plan for it. The experience of harassment has a lot to do with how little control the users have. Users have to strategize around a platform’s deficiencies.

Small: A lot of this runs up against the founding notion of online utopia that logging on once promised, that more connections would somehow make the web better.

McNeil: The word "utopia" has its origins in the Greek for "no place." The internet as a utopia already was a failed ideal. But I do think there's a possibility for the internet to be as ideal as possible for an individual. Some of us are having this shared experience of only being able to socialize through the internet. The services we are using like Twitter and Zoom aren’t great. But we know who we want to talk to, we are forming communities in group DMs and videoconferences for the same reason people have always created communities, even before the internet.

The question is how to fund and find the time to create ideal online spaces. The best spaces are going to be non-commercial and decentralized entities. There’s also a problem of getting people to join. If you have to participate on Facebook because your job or your civic life is tied to it, it can be difficult to decamp entirely. But if you have an existing community that is looking to keep in touch online, why not organize on a platform more ideal for your community’s needs? 

Small: You mentioned this earlier, but I really like your idea of having librarians for the internet. What role do you think they could play in making online spaces better?

McNeil: I think of it as the care work that goes beyond even moderating an online community. If we are leaving scraps of our social lives on the internet; how much should we preserve for the future and what do we preserve for the future? The New York Historical Society has an archive of Echo. Now, Echo is an online service that was founded in 1990, at a time when online communication was rarer, but what about the messages a bunch of people exchanged on Snapchat in 2015 or videos on TikTok tomorrow? Who will gather this information and why? This is another advantage of decentralized communities, because it is easier to make a community decision about the archives of a community when that community is close-knit already.

Small: We’re going to wrap up this interview with one last question: What are three online places you keep coming back to?

Friend.Camp, an instance on Mastodon that Darius Kazemi organizes: That's my little escape from the big scary platforms that are full and anxiety-inducing. Friend Camp is what people are nostalgic for about the earlier internet. You can get stuff like that to this day if you have someone willing to put in the work like Darius. (Here’s his explainer on how to run a small social network for your friends.)

Pinboard, a bookmarking service with community features: I use Pinboard to save links privately related to my research. I just recently saved this story from Texas Monthlyabout how a grocery store in San Antonio prepared for the pandemic.

YouTube, for the old-web nostalgia: I do love YouTube, not for vloggers but I love finding random old movies and the old glitchy files, ones that were maybe uploaded back in 2007 and the picture quality is kind of terrible. I find those kind of comforting. I just watched Home, a BBC adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s The Enormous Space.

What’s clicking

You have a moral duty to post your boring life on Instagram - The Atlantic

Campus is closed, so college students are remaking their schools in Minecraft - The Verge

Balconies, windows, and rooftops are the new public spaces - Atlas Obscura

Facebook’s private groups are abuzz with coronavirus fake news - Politico

Democrats say Google’s COVID-19 ad ban is a gift to Trump - Protocol

The view from quarantine - Slate


As designers and technologists, we play an important role in helping craft digital environments. … Personal and public health are very sensitive systems, and work done with even the best of intentions could create unintended harm by undermining critical efforts in other areas. This challenge is not unique to public health crises; we must be mindful of our responsibility to minimize harm in everything that we do.

— Margaret Gould Stewart, vice president of product design at Facebook, “Designing with Care During COVID-19 and Beyond,Medium

Mailbag: Restarting the Internet Relay

In a previous edition, we asked readers to share how they’re building digital closeness in this new order of stay-at-home life. Reader Bix Frankonis writes to us from Portland, Oregon, about how quarantine times have rekindled an old online connection:

Interestingly, not long after I’d been musing about “the web of places,” social distancing measures here in the U.S. began to ramp up and somehow number of people from my first-ever online community, a New York City-based internet BBS which no longer exists, seemed to have the same idea of returning to our old IRC channel

We’ve been hanging out there for days now, and every day as we send out feelers we get another one or two more people from the old days showing up. I couldn’t begin to explain the draw, especially. Some of these people have stayed in touch, others not so much. Maybe it’s some sort of continuity thing: our lives existed two or three decades ago, and looking back maybe reassures us a bit about looking forward.

Bix describes that original message board as “full of hackers, self-professed cyberpunks, and curious hangers-on” with playful gimmicks like auto-deleting forums or ironic ASCII art replacing discussions where moderators had to bring the hammer down. While the group hasn’t explicitly talked about why they got back in touch, Bix has a theory: 

I think it has to do with so much of people’s offline communities and third-places being shut down or unavailable, and how our shared past community in a sense presented a ready-made online quasi-substitute, just to keep some sense or semblance of sociality going.

Thanks for writing in, Bix! And keep the emails coming, let us know how you are building digital closeness in the time of quarantine. Send a note to civicsignals@gmail.com and share what you’re doing with the rest of us. By the way, that mention of the “third places” gives me an idea of something we should talk about next week. So stay tuned. Until then, here’s a good tweet that encompasses how quarantine’s feeling about now:

Hope to catch you lurking around,
Andrew Small

Civic Signals is a partnership between the Center for Media Engagement at the University of Texas, Austin and the National Conference on Citizenship, and was incubated by New America. Share this newsletter with your friends!